Memories of Early Jobs

 So my daughter is searching for a summer job, which, provided she lands one, will be her first job of any consequence, save for the very occasional child care gig or house-tending for vacationing neighbors. As a recent high school graduate, she’s a little late to be entering the job world—that’s right, a child of privilege, ’nuff said—but her quest has put me in mind of my own early jobs and the deep memories and images they have left me with most of a lifetime later.

My first sort-of-real job was as understudy for my brother’s paper route. He was three years older, and once he landed the job, he appointed himself CEO. Then he hired me, his 9-year-old younger brother, to get up with him twice a week at 5 a.m. I’d deliver the Eagle Rock Sentinel up one side of the street while he did the other. We did this over a whole bunch of streets.

For this, he paid me the princely sum of $1 each day, $8 (sometimes $9!) a month. He made some $30 or so as CEO, so this was my early introduction to capitalism, which is shorthand for “Hire someone else to do a gob of work while you keep most of the money.”

So many other wonderful jobs followed.

Pet store employee, where the owner’s strange obsession with exotic animals that no one would ever buy taught me how to efficiently mop up monkey diarrhea and how to clean python cages without the dude mistaking my arm for a rabbit.

I learned burger flipping at Jack in the Box!

How to mix an Orange Julius with that secret powder!

We’d often carry on conversations while he tended to a naked body on the slab. Just another day at the office for him, but a whole world of contemplation and food for thought for 19-year-old me.

 

How to usher grieving family members into the mortuary to view their loved ones after the mortician had dressed them in their Sunday finest. This was only after he’d embalmed them, of course, within a few feet of where I sat studying for my college classes when no one was visiting.

 We’d often carry on conversations while he tended to a naked body on the slab. Just another day at the office for him, but a whole world of contemplation and food for thought for 19-year-old me.

Sometimes in the evening, we’d host small beer parties in his apartment up above the mortuary (an early version of the home office, come to think of it…). After we’d tipped a few, we’d give in to our guests’ curiosity and head down below to show them around. The tour included checking on the bodies if any were available, some already dressed in nice suits and dresses and lying in repose in their caskets, others still on the slab of the embalming room, awaiting the administration of makeup and their final wardrobe.

It was old hat for the mortician and I, but our guests were entranced, as encounters with the mysteries of flesh and its departed spirit always are to those fresh to reckoning with mortality, however halting that reckoning might be at such a tender age.

 

Another summer I was taking some courses and couldn’t schedule a full-time job, so I signed with a temp agency that sent me out to a small industrial plastics company in Santa Monica.

My job was to jam huge solid swaths of colored plastic into one end of a grinding machine, then schlump over to the other end where the solid mass had been turned to powder. There, I stuck my head down and deep into the collecting bin to scoop the powder out and into containers ready for shipment.

When I got home at night, I’d be blowing my nose and all this blue powder would be showing up on the tissue, and I said more than once to myself, “Maybe I really should start wearing a mask like I see all the permanent employees doing.” But I never did.

The plant schedule was run by bells and whistles. 10:00, ring ring, we’d all drop what we were doing and beeline toward the locker room, where we’d sit either making idle small talk or staring vacantly ahead. Some guys pulled half-pint bottles of colored liquid furtively from their lockers and took a few swigs before the bells summoned us back out.

At the end of my week-long assignment, the floor boss came to me and said, “You know, you’re really a good worker, so if you’d like to sign on for…” I could not blurt out fast enough, “I’m going back to school next week, sorry!”

 

In another one of those college summers, I worked full-time in a print shop, where I learned how to be a platemaker. (Don’t ask—I’m not sure I could explain it to you anymore.) I also hung out occasionally on the press, where Tony, the pressman, went about his business with all the ardor of an artist busy and content with his canvas.

“When I get to work in the morning, the smell of the ink, I love it, I never get over it!” he’d exclaim. He was Latino and a man of great passion. I’m sure his wife appreciated him.

In contrast to my temp colleagues at the plastics plant, Tony had an infectious exuberance and great love for his trade. But both he and the plastics guys, in their own way, taught me much about a kind of baseline dignity of work.

Wherever it was that your life and times landed you, whether you are fortunate to love your job or not, you show up, you respond to the bell, you go out to slay or harvest your daily ration of food that will keep you and your brood alive.

Ever since, I don’t believe I have ever impugned a high school-educated laborer or failed to respect their role in this world. It’s hard out there in that plant, that shop, that field, that store and office where we spend so much of our waking lives.

 

Every job we ever have teaches us something, if only what we’re not suited for, and what we are glad to leave to others in this world.

It’s a world that works only because of the incredible range of interests, talents and obsessions that the gods bequeath us humans, and that keep us going from one job to the next, one day to the next. Then we get up and do it again, glad at the very least for the paycheck and sense of identity that comes from being a working person in a world that needs all the good work we can do on its behalf.

***

O.K., I know that you, too, were at one time a working class hero of youth, bringing home those sweet first paychecks. Tell us something about your first job in the Comments section below; it will help enliven your stroll down Memory Lane!

Then take another stroll down to this blog’s public page on Facebook for daily, 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied always by lovely photography. http://www.facebook.com/TraversingBlog

Twitter: @AndrewHidas

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Deep appreciation to the photographers!

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Jack-in-the-Box photo near top of page by George, Phoenix, Arizona, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/georgie56/

Ancient Egyptian mortuary and temple photo by dissonancefalling,some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dissonancefalling/

10 comments to Memories of Early Jobs

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    Summer Jobs! Great topic – my first “real job” (W-2 etc) after paper routes and such was washing dishes at the Taj Mahal in Seattle WA – a little hole in the wall in the U-district. Horrible, first off – it was a split shift (AM prep, PM wash/clean) – so all of my cronies were out playing/goofing off by the time I got off work and then I had to leave to go to work… but the capper was this: I had to peel and dice a 50lb sack (big as a good size child) of onions every other day!! Now I like onions but egads – the oil from the onions seeped into my skin and no amount of washing can ever get that rancid smell out (I mean Lady Macbeth style washing did no good!)… oh, this was summer of 65 – pay was $1.25 per hr. I lasted one month and quit… worked a few more restaurants – one was a fry cook at Smitty’s House of Pancakes, also Seattle – summer of 66 right out of HS – good gig except for Sunday AM – line out the door of post church goers – we had 5 fry cooks humping full speed, rookies like me had the egg grill (“4 on 8 over easy, 1 omelettes” the lead cook shouts) – I was getting into serious beer drinking and many a hung over Sunday AM after 2-3 hrs sleep, alcohol oozing from my pores as I labored over the 120 degree egg grill… real characters worked there, one guy, Jack – was a 30 something navy vet, smoked like crazy, parked his car near the back break area, a 3 tone American Motors Marlin (one of the delightfully ugliest cars every built!)… the BSin’ with Jack and the guys was a blast for this 17 yr old… following summer of 67 worked 2 months for American Office equipment helping with the deliveries – the lead driver , Jim Ojendyke, prided himself on being able to miss every light on 3rd Ave downtown as to be first in line at the cross walk to ogle hot looking secretaries crossing the street and get “leg action” (peering down from the elevated truck cab into cars driven by women as their skirts would ride up from using the clutch/breaks) – then I took off for a month in SF (summer of Love) and LA (saw CREAM 2 nights at the Fillmore, Buffalo Springfield in LA at the Chetah which totally “blew my mind” as they say…but that’s another topic!)

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I’m laughing right through my lunch with this, Kevin. Great descriptions; I’m right there with ya!

  • Walt McKeown  says:

    I ran a hot dog stand at a drag strip in northern Illinois. This was about 1958 back when cars had fins like God intended. The cool guys all had pompador haircuts like James Dean…
    Walt

  • Moon  says:

    The best job for a jock or “gym rat”…in high school, between my Jr and Sr years, I had the privilege to open the Eagle Rock High School gym and close it up in the afternoon. The weight room was mine for the taking, and I didn’t even have to perform any custodial duties. Easy work, great pay for the time, and little to no supervision! Who could ask for more?

  • Angela  says:

    I was the Waitress in a Donut Shop.

    I had many, many jobs in my youth. Money was in short supply where I grew up, and there was a clear, direct and sometimes rocky path to having any of my own, and that path was marked: Get a Job.
    I undertook a wide variety of jobs. There was babysitting, ho hum. There was work in cornfields and soybean fields and baling hay, which did great things for my biceps but was very sweaty, to say the least; plus after the long exhausting days all those bales and cornstalks and bean rows haunted my dreams in repetitive fashion like the buckets of water in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

    Given this perspective I was not daunted by the prospect of working indoors, in air conditioning, taking the graveyard shift at a Dunkin Donuts in Tucson Arizona in 1974. From 11 pm to 7 am I poured coffee, glazed and sprinkled, cleared dishes and restocked the display case. I cannot remember how much I made, but it was more than if I had not been doing it, which seemed the general guiding principle. And it used some of my talents at that age, which were to be interested in almost anything, to stand on my feet for a solid 8 hours, to try my hand at something new, to greet people with a smile and engage in conversation at the drop of a hat. That I didn’t care much for sugar and didn’t drink coffee was one of those little twists of fate that I found amusing.

    This was 1974; Tucson was a major destination on the hippie circuit, which was how I had ended up there myself, so far from the soybean fields. As a result, many stoned individuals would wander in at 3am, with that dazed and happy look. They were a gentle clientele and no trouble at all, in that they mostly just took up floor space in front of the counter, using at least a solid half an hour in the middle of the night to decide between a chocolate cake donut with sprinkles or without, or ooh! maybe a cream-filled?? The Berlin Conference was conducted with far less debate.

    These discussions were often conducted right next to the police officers who stopped in routinely at that hour, who would look over at the debate team and just sort of roll their eyes. It was a simpler time.

    This particular Dunkin Donuts was perched at what was then the very edge of Tucson, where the town runs out and the Sonoran desert meets the Rincon Mountains. Just where you need a Dunkin Donuts, don’t you agree? In the time between when the hippies had gone home and the hospital workers started to stream in there came a little lull, and the sky would begin to lighten. And I am here to tell you that whether you are paid a dime an hour or a million dollars a year, a job where you get to see the sun come up over the desert every day is a job worth having. I stood at that counter, my curly hair smelling like coffee, my hands sticky with sugar, and a sleepy smile on my face.

    Economics 101.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRJn8Ddio7Q

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Walt, all that imagery: drag strip hot dog stands, cars with fins, James Dean and you with a pompadour, has my mind reeling here…

    Moon, that sounds like a job perfect for either a student or old guy. Where do I apply?

    Angela: Great story, really fun song. I think I spent a nice spring break in Tucson 1974. Can’t remember whether I visited any Dunkin’ Donuts at 3 a.m., but if I did, it would stand to reason that I would not remember a thing about it… 🙂 I’m with you on the majesty of desert sunrises, though. Especially in the cooler seasons, when you don’t have to pay for them by sticking your head in an oven every time you open your front door.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Two personal notes, Andrew. First, the beer parties at the mortuary apartment bring back a slew of memories; including our youthful compassion for the young, rather socially isolated mortician. You will recall us taking him to parties with us and understanding his wish to not share with young ladies the nature of his profession, fearing that “mortician” would creep out any potentialadvancement for the affable young man. Memory number 2 involves a glaring and surprising oversight on your part that has undoubtedly occurred to you by now. How could you possibly forget us in our white uniforms delivering and retrieving food trays in a hospital? “Traymen” we were called, and much fun and many life lessons were learned from mentors such as the inestimable Munoz as we cleaned pots and loaded factory dishwashers.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Jay, yes, I am rather amazed I neglected to mention that hospital job, about which I could write an entire tract. I think I held it at the same time I was at the mortuary a few nights a week and also working something else: I remember at one point noting to myself that I had three part-time jobs while carrying a full academic load and playing college basketball through fall and winter—oh, youthful energy!

      The hospital job dove-tailed with imagery from the mortuary, many of the patients in such dire straits that they were nearly at the mortician’s door as they lay in bed, unconscious or nearly so. Gazing sometimes upon toothless snoring patients of ancient age as I took their dinner trays in and then returned later to remove the untouched contents, I remember wondering what if anything was going on below decks for them. You can’t confront terribly ill or dead people on a nearly daily basis in your youth without becoming at least a closet philosopher, it seems to me. Those jobs helped shape me in untold ways, I am quite certain. Thanks for this reminder, and about the challenges faced by a young man with “Mortician” on his business card…

  • Robby Miller  says:

    First, a note to Angela: I was one of those Tucson hippies in 1974 (having hitchhiked there from SoCal in 1971) and though I tended more towards the western side of town and the 4th Avenue counter-culture scene, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had served me a glazed jelly on my way to a hike in the Rincon’s. Speaking of Tucson, I had a short-lived job there debugging the brown rice bin at one of the hippie/natural foods restaurants on 4th, before the chef scooped it up for the day’s special.

    Putting aside my 9 days at McDonald’s, immediately followed by a 2-week stint at the Minute Man Car Wash (God forbid you were assigned inside rear windows in those days of “fastbacks”), my most unique job (if anything can be more unique than removing crawling critters from soon to be consumed food) was “Tank Tender” for a sensory isolation business in Riverside in the late 1970’s. Not only did the owner give me half off my rent (the tank was in the converted garage of a private home where I lived), but I got to use the tank for free as much as I wanted. And use it I did! I also helped prepare customers for their experience and debriefed them afterwards.

    Those were the days.

  • Al Hass  says:

    Thanks for opening this fertile topic for us Andrew. Skipping over the boring jobs I had from paper route to mailroom clerk to autopsy orderly in a futile attempt to gain admission to an American medical school, the jobs I had after graduating from Stanford stick in my mind the most. When I was admitted to Stanford I thought success was guaranteed. When I graduated my first jobs were fixing chairs, washing dishes at a restaurant in the SF financial district and decapitating mice with a scissors at UCSF to check the concentration of lead in their little brains.

    The interesting thing for me was that I found these jobs liberating. Far from being ruined, my life was comfortable, relaxed and happy. This was my first inkling of a broader definition of success. It was years later that I heard a spiritual teacher speak of the virtues of being a nobody. Talk about subversive. Absolutely un-American. But still strangely refreshing and liberating for me.

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